New Global Family:
Cheryl and Zoe’s Stories
By Cheryl Paley
"Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"
A Profile in Divorce: 50 Years
efore there was an IF magazine for me, there was a book. A book of stories, in interview format, of “non-traditional” parents, including single mothers. One of the goals I set for myself in writing that book was to give voice to the courage it takes to walk away from a bad situation and parent as a single person. To face the stigma, the labels. To go it alone. Sadly, there are few brownie points in our culture for people who are brave enough to do that. Here are the stories of two of them.
I took the title for this article from the Linda Lavin movie of the 70s. Alice, a waitress in a small town, does the unthinkable, leaving an abusive marriage and, eventually, finding herself. So, here’s to you, Alice.
Alice in 1955
Years have passed since the story she told took place. Today the "Alice" I know and love is nicely settled in a Florida condo. But the two and a half years she experienced in the 1950s between marriages as the "single woman with a child" shook her to the core. She is today as she was back then - tiny, steely, gorgeous, shrewd and at the same time she'd give you the shirt off her back, the food from her plate. Mother Courage from the Bronx. She was alternately outraged as she recalled her experience, and grateful. Grateful there was, eventually, an ending to it all: an "out" in the form of a second marriage. But "Alice" never forgets, and I think all who read it will find her story unforgettable as well.
Alice 1955: I became a single mom in 1955, my daughter was somewhere between three and four years old and I was twenty-four years old and it was a very, very difficult time. My husband was a traveling salesman. He was dapper. A “looker” and a “big spender.” Like Frank Sinatra. And I loved him... in the beginning. But we had no money, he was never home, it was a very hard life and I decided I didn't want my daughter to be raised that way. Nobody would accept divorce back then. You were either looked at as "no good" or people thought you must be "fooling around." Like you were some kind of "floozy." My parents were humiliated over this whole thing, just humiliated. They felt I should have stayed no matter what, no matter what he did, that was just the way it was supposed to be. I brought my child to my mother so I could get a job; I knew I had to go to work. So I found a job in an office and they were going to fire me when they found out I had a small child because they were afraid I would have to take off too much time if my daughter got sick. I had to sign an affidavit with this company that my daughter was living with my parents and that they would be taking care of her if she became ill and that's how I got the job back and was finally able to work. What else... oh, I couldn't have my own checking account. Women couldn't get checking accounts back then. Don’t look so surprised, I’m not lying to you about this one.
People looked at you like you were tainted, my own girlfriend's father tried to “do things” to me, he thought I must be "loose." Before this, I was just another girl from the neighborhood, but when I got divorced I had this "title" and because I wasn't with a man, men in my neighborhood thought they'd do me this favor of having sex with me or taking me out or paying my husband’s debts, taking care of me financially… for a price. And the girls from the neighborhood, the wives, forget it. I didn't fit in anymore. I had to make all new friends. The married women didn't like you anymore because they thought you were going to go after their husband, you were a threat to them. So I realized that I was in a whole new ballgame, a whole new ballgame, and things were going to be very, very different. I couldn't go out of the house (at night), my mother wouldn't let me out because she said the relatives were saying bad things and she didn't want me to make it any worse. I was "the single woman with a child," and I wasn't supposed to go out because of how it would look. My mother made sure I didn't go out, she wouldn't allow me to go and I had no choice because she was taking care of my daughter. And then after about 8 months they finally let me go to a movie with a married couple I knew and that's where I bumped into the man who would be my second husband. I had known him since I was twelve but I had not seen him in about fifteen years. He heard that I had a little girl and he had just come back from Korea. I really wasn't interested but he was so kind to my daughter, he kept bringing her things - clothing and toys, for about three months, and only then would I agree to go out with him, and only if another couple came out with us. My parents decided that a single man who had never had a wife or a child was not "good news" and so my mother told me I had to stop seeing him or she would not take care of my daughter any more. My ex husband's sister offered to take care of her during the day so I could work but nobody knew - I would sneak her out of my apartment at six o'clock in the morning to the other apartment so I could go to work - I worked ten hours a day and traveled two hours to get to the job. Finally my own brother and sister-in-law found out what I was doing and took us in.
One day I got home after work and my sister-in-law said "she doesn't eat, she just sits there." I went in to where my daughter was and sat with her and asked her what was wrong: "I wait for you all day and then you come in and all you do is feed me, hit me and put me to bed." I thought I would die... I really thought I would die. She always thought it was her fault, the whole thing. She thought it was because of her.
Her father never supported her, he never gave us a dime but I never stopped him from seeing her, I didn't believe in that. I asked him for money, he never had it. He always owed people money; shylocks would come to my door looking for him. A man came and almost took all my furniture once. Sometimes they would be at my work on Fridays, payday, to take my paycheck, because he – my husband – he owed them.
I remember the day he left. He had not been home for two days. Finally he showed up and I made him breakfast. He's gone for two days and I'm making him breakfast, how do you like that! When I asked him where he was, he just sat there, reading the racing forms. I asked him again, all the time I'm cooking him breakfast. So he gets up, takes his two middle fingers, pokes me in the forehead, really hard, right above the eyes and pushes me up against the hot stove and starts yelling "Shut up! Shut up! I didn't come home to listen to this." And that was it. I took a frying pan and hit him over the head so hard; I mean I really got him. He went to grab me and I ran down the steps screaming. I was screaming “he hit me he hit me” and he’s saying “no, I didn’t do anything, she hit me” and my brother ran in and said "that's enough - you have to go, you're making my sister sick." That was the only way I could get rid of him because he wouldn't go any other way.
This was the way it was. You just didn't leave a marriage back then. You had to stay whether it was bad or good and if you weren't happy, tough luck. And if it didn't work you had to keep your mouth shut. I remember my mother saying "who's gonna wanna marry you, you're a used woman." A used woman. You see, when I left my first husband everybody was shocked - nobody from the neighborhood had a clue because it was all good on the outside, I made sure it looked good on the outside. I told no one what was going on. Nobody understood why I had to go work, why I had to leave my kid when she was three years old to go to work; nobody knew what was going on. I made sure nobody knew because I was ashamed. My brothers knew, they were the only ones because they were giving me money to help us. There was no money for me and my daughter but he - he always had the clothes and the cars. He was a big shot.
I got lucky, running into my second husband at the movies, it was just dumb luck. I saw him for two years and finally I decided I had to get married again, my daughter was in the middle of it all and it just wasn't right, it just wasn't right. It was an awful time, an awful time. You wanna know what it was like, being a single mother back then, being a divorced woman, leaving a marriage. It was hard, that's what it was. Very, very hard.
Alice in the year 2005
I wanted to speak to present day single mothers who had left their marriages to find out – how far have we come? I did speak to women who were supported and empowered to leave a bad situation. But not many. There is never an easy way to leave a marriage and, even in the best of circumstances it is a hardship, especially when children are involved. I do believe that we have made small gains since “Alice in 1955”. But, of all the interviews I did present day, this was the most honest, articulate and candid.
Alice in 2005: Honestly, most people didn't pressure me to stay in my marriage. More often the people who were close to me were either hinting or out right saying I should go. But right before I told my ex he had to go I had lunch with a friend who is also a child advocacy lawyer. I was very depressed and I knew that my marriage was over. But I was afraid to leave because I thought that if I left him I would have less control over him. For most of the kids' lives I had figured out ways to keep him "supervised." He had never been that involved a parent to start, but when he wanted to do something that seemed "normal" to him like driving the kids to Rye Playland or even going to the park I could figure out a way for him to do it safely while we were married. Even though I wasn't admitting that he was an active drug user I knew that he was not functioning and enough harmful or potentially harmful things had happened that I knew I couldn't leave him alone with the kids.
My friend said she thought I shouldn't leave him, that I would have less say over my children's safety if we split up. That was one thing that had always kept me there -- a fear that the courts might make the decisions for me. But when I finally knew he had to go, she did back me up. I knew I couldn't keep the kids safe with him there, so I decided I might as well take the plunge.
Another friend also encouraged me to stay. Her reasoning was that a bad husband was better than no husband. Even I knew that wasn't true.
My drive to stay married came from a deeper, more internal place - my own deep and desperate desire to have the happy family I envisioned come to fruition. And in order to be "normal" and give my kids this happy family I needed their dad to play his role. I needed “the Dad.”
The idea of having my ex around comforted me, even when he was basically negative energy taking away from my own sense of well being, and making chaos in the world around us. The idea of being a single mom terrified me. I remember before my son was born how ashamed and scared I was that I might be in labor alone, that the baby would come into the world without his father seeing him. I felt that was somehow my son's right - to have his daddy there.
Nobody thinks your kids are as cute as you do, except maybe their other parent. If nothing else. I wanted him around to share my pleasure in the kids. Our kids. To say "our kids." "Our house." "Our life." I had been a "we" for so long, I didn't exactly know how to do anything else.
My own issue with becoming a single mom was that I could not imagine myself in that role. Somehow I thought that middle class whiteness was going to shield me from the harsh realities of my situation. "Nice Jewish girls" from the suburbs don't watch their husbands nod in their bed in front of their baby.
But the seeds of this cultural construct, the one I was so attached to, started from the beginning of our marriage. When we got engaged I was a creative writing major living in the east village. I wanted to be a novelist. I turned down a job at GQ because I thought it was too mainstream and corporate. I swore I would never work nine to five. Yet, about a month after we got engaged I began to hint around: "when exactly is my diamond coming?" Where does that come from?
Underneath it all I felt that, as long as he was my husband he still afforded me a certain amount of respectability and success and status in the outside world. No one else needed to know he nodded out in Lamaze class. To be in a "couple" and to create a family was, in this society, a milestone and a mark of being a successful adult.
I didn't want to be a "single mother" - they were "freaks." They had stories attached to them, descriptions of why they were single. The stories could be valid or heroics or whatever, but to say you're a single mother evokes a reaction. I didn't want to be looked at. I wanted to just "be."
When I really started to look around me, I saw that mostly, women around me were raising their kids by themselves - even the married ones. There is plenty of opportunity to create relationships with other mothers without their spouses because so many of them seem to have been abandoned by men who work all the time. But then comes the weekend - suddenly the married ones are off - it's "family time."I still worry - can I handle all of this by myself? But truthfully, I was more or less a single mother from the beginning.
So… still think Alice doesn’t live here anymore?